One of the most affecting films of 2023; “THE HOLDOVERS” | MOVIE REVIEW

The seventies were a glorious time for filmmakers. From one film to the next, directors such as Hal Ashby, Jerry Schatzberg, Bob Rafelson (and more) made intoxicating works full of honesty and truth, achieving powerful emotion through rich characters and relatable situations. Through a career of mostly fantastic films, writer/director Alexander Payne has proven he paid close attention to the great auteurs of that fruitful era, infusing his works with authentic portrayals of life, love, pain, and the whole damned thing regarding adult relationships. With his latest, “The Holdovers,” Payne has crafted a poignant tale of loss and human connection that breathes with realism.

Paul Giamatti is Paul Hunham, a teacher of ancient history at the elite Massachusetts boarding school Barton Academy. Paul is a cynical teacher who gleefully gives his affluent students failing grades, looking at these spoiled kids from well-off families with a contempt he cannot mask. Hunham doesn’t kowtow to the rich and refuses to hand out passing grades just because a student’s parent may have donated money to the school. While certain staff are pleasant to him, the administration and its students are far from fond of the man. The student makes up offensive lies about his nighttime habits and adds to his personal insults to the Dean, who was formerly Paul’s student. The embarrassment of status change for both men has given them a contentious relationship. David Hemingson’s screenplay humorously has the two men trading thinly cloaked insults whenever they share the same space.

For winter break, Paul takes on holdover duty; he is to supervise the handful of students who cannot join their families for the holidays. For this emotionally and socially secluded man, this isn’t the short straw the other faculty members claim it to be, save for being a month-long babysitter to a handful of kids, including one Angus Tully (fantastic newcomer Dominic Sessa). It is through Angus and the head of the cafeteria, Mary Lamb (a marvelous Da’Vine Joy Randolph), that the screenplay highlights how someone we don’t know can guide our futures, sending us on a new path when we thought life was as far as it will go.

When the other students are rescued by one of their fathers (who flies them all home in his helicopter), Angus stays by himself, as his mother and stepfather have decided to take their overdue honeymoon instead of spending the holiday with him, which forces Hunham and Tilly into an uncomfortable month together. While movies have long drowned in combative teacher/student relationships that morph into mutual respect, Payne and Hemingson effortlessly earn every plot point and sentiment organically.

This is a film of connections and how one is shaped by them. When Paul, Angus, and Mary are together, their budding relationships never stumble into cliche. The three are connected by the loss of family in some form or another: Hunham’s reluctance to have one, the death of Mary’s son, and Angus’ abandonment by his own mother. “The Holdovers” respects its characters, and Payne never looks down on them, nor does he allow them to be mocked.

Performing without an ounce of phony sentimentality, Giamatti goes deep into his character’s soul, finding sincerity in a grump who isn’t a bad sort. Past events have shaped Hunham’s view of the world, but there is a kind heart in there that the film wants its audience to discover.

The actor is supremely committed to his character, as he peppers Paul with a self-pleasing memory filled with anecdotes about ancient civilizations that he brings out to avoid actual conversations, now and again seen as the S.O.S. of a lonely man. Giamatti is terrific in the role that could finally win him a long-overdue Oscar.

Da’Vine Joy Randolph is subtly funny and heartbreaking as Mary, a woman mourning her son who recently died in Vietnam. Like Giamatti, Randolph’s performance is sharp and powerful. Mary’s grief is written on her face, although she dares let through the occasional smile. It is the natural manner in which she bonds with Hunham and Angus that allows the actress so many little moments, important gestures and direct comments that make Mary as real and powerful as the grief she carries.

As Angus Tully, Dominic Sessa is the find of the year. This young man goes toe to toe with Giamatti as if he had been acting for years, navigating the emotions of a young man at the edge of adulthood, dealing with more than anyone his age should have to handle. Sessa is sharp and witty, boldly making his mark, opening the door to a bright acting career.

Alexander Payne has stated that his films are seventies films. Setting this film at the end of 1970, the director doesn’t hammer home the era, he creates a complete package. Cinematographer Eigil Bryld’s visuals naturally evoke the time and place, embracing the cold wintry East Coast setting and injecting a visual beauty to the bleakness. As with the film’s characters, under the cold exterior lies a warm comfort.

“The Holdovers” is an absolute treasure, assuring every dramatic beat is fresh rather than familiar. With the ghost of Hal Ashby watching over him, Alexander Payne has made a smart and funny movie where its humanity and beating heart make this one of the most affecting films of 2023.